The Mad Science of Gelato 

Inside Lush Gelato's flavor lab and the science of ice cream.

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Likewise, at its beginnings, the process of inventing a new flavor combination is far from formulaic or sterile — more rap session than scientific equation. Anything might serve as inspiration: an unusual fruit Murtagh happens to sample, a dish he ate at a restaurant. Walking into the Cowgirl Creamery kiosk at the Ferry Building, Murtagh spots a display case full of blue cheese, which reminds him that he'd wanted to use that cheese as the basis for a new flavor.

"I hate blue cheese, but ... " he says to Jorgenson, the thought trailing off. "So what do you think, blue cheese by itself?"

And so everyone starts brainstorming: peppers and blue cheese? A classic pear and blue cheese combination? Roasted tomatoes and blue cheese?

Of course any guy off the street can come up with an obscure flavor combination that sounds promising, but Murtagh's talent lies in making the stuff actually taste good. In fact, the gelato master welcomes customers who'd like to try their hand at some amateur flavorology of their own; they can submit an entry to the store's first ever Flavor Contest by October 8. The winner will have his or her flavor featured in the both Lush locations and receive a month's worth of free gelato to boot.

Back at the lab, Murtagh thinks the habañero chocolate mix might be ready. "Any brave tasters?" The chiles, he's heard, are 1,000 times spicier than a jalapeño, so he's been cautious with their application to start. Everyone dips a spoon into the pot and tastes. The chocolate is dark and rich, and the heat is subtle but creeps up in the back of your throat. After some discussion, Murtagh is convinced that he can go even spicier.

He reasons, "If you order orange habañero, you want a kick in the face, so that's what I'm going to give you."

The name of the flavor will be Orange Picante.


Murtagh got into the gelato business by accident, he explains. In 2001, he came to the Bay Area from Argentina to work on a university degree. Along the way, he ended up meeting the owner of San Francisco's Tango Gelato, a fellow Argentinian whose ice cream maker was leaving for Europe.

"They weren't doing very well in quality, so I said, 'Well, let me try,'" he said. "'I have no idea. I've never done this before, but you have nothing to lose.' It was kind of crazy to have no idea."

Murtagh received some perfunctory training from the prior maker, but, really, he taught himself by reading up on the science of ice cream and getting in touch with some food chemists and pastry chefs. At the time, toward the end of 2004, Murtagh says Tango was using a kind of Italian powder chock full of ingredients that weren't particularly natural, as a big part of its gelato recipe. So he took it upon himself to find out the function of the various items in the powder so that he could replace them with more natural ingredients — replacing the emulsifiers with egg yolks, the powdered milk with actual milk, and so forth. The result was a product that came a lot closer to being made from scratch, and Murtagh realized that he had a knack for the thing. Eventually he parted ways with Tango to start his own company, Buenos Aires Gourmet, with financial backing from his father Jorge and, later, from Jorgensen.

"I was an exchange student in Italy, which was where I started my love affair with gelato. And his was the best I'd ever tried," Jorgensen said. "He's super-dedicated, and he's got talent."

At first Murtagh just did wholesale contracts and farmers' markets, before eventually moving into the retail sector under the Lush brand name.

Murtagh notes that Argentina has one of the world's largest Italian populations outside of Italy and, as a result, an absurdly high per-capita consumption of ice cream. And Argentine helado is much more closely linked to Italian gelato than the ice cream typically found in the United States. In Argentina, Murtagh explains, gelaterias are kind of like US pizza places. "We have ice cream stores that deliver ice cream, like pizza delivery or something like that," he said. "They have these little scooters and deliver it in a styrofoam container. I remember at some point before coming here, every Sunday I would order a kilo and finish a kilo in one day."

In that sense, Murtagh really does have gelato in his blood, although at Lush, the Argentinian influence is limited to certain specialty flavors that the shop carries on and off, like Yerba Mate or Dulce de Leche. But aside from his sorbettos, which contain no dairy products, all of his creations can certainly be classified as gelatos and not ice cream.

The basic difference, Murtagh said, is that gelato has much lower butterfat content than a so-called "super-premium" ice cream like, say, Häagen Dazs. This is somewhat counterintuitive, since most people tend to assume that the decadent creaminess of a good gelato must come from adding a lot of fat. Actually, the other key is to have a very low "overrun" — i.e., the amount of air whipped into the mix when churning it. This makes a gelato or ice cream denser and creamier and less prone to iciness. The maximum overrun for super-premium ice creams is 30 percent air to volume ratio — Murtagh speculates that the overrun of a typical Häagen Dazs ice cream is at least 13 percent, whereas gelatos are under 10 percent. What you're going for, he says, is a super smooth texture and intense flavors.

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